“The board is set. The pieces are moving.” Good old Gandalf the White. This wizard is never one to miss an opportunity to state the obvious. This crotchety old mensch has been doing exactly that through the first part of the filmed version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, as well as the second, The Two Towers. He’s been bolstering his brave and hearty troop of hobbits and elves and dwarves and men with simple words of courage and wisdom through six hours of this epic, and he’s not about to stop now. Especially since he’s been wearing a halo of divinity after defeating one very nasty demon in the first flick. Coming from any actor with weaker chops than Ian McKellen, this type of dialogue would elicit laughter from the novice visitor to Middle Earth. Like everything else about the third installment and the two that preceded it, the sheer artistry of director Peter Jackson’s masterwork scares any snide cynicism away. In Return of the King, the battle for the very survival of Middle Earth and all its fantastical creations will be fought, and unless you are a congenital buzz-kill, you will feel the urgency, terror, and sweeping import of it all.
I have not read any of Tolkien’s books, so I cannot tell you whether Peter Jackson has been true to these beloved and fanatically cherished tomes. I’m assuming he has mined them appropriately, otherwise you and I would have been witness to countless ideological drubbings from “true believers,” Mr. Jackson would have gone into hiding someplace in New Zealand, and a proclamation would have been issued from some Internet chat room to destroy all copies of the nine-plus hours of celluloid blasphemy.
The action in Return of the King begins exactly where The Two Towers left us. Middle Earth is protected gallantly by the men of Rohan and Gondor with the help of Gandalf and his scrappy sidekicks, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Gimli the dwarf (John Rhys-Davies), and Legolas the elf (Orlando Bloom). But the kingdom is still in terrible danger of being overrun by the Big Evil Eyeball, Sauron of Mordor and his minions of deliciously ugly orcs. Liv Tyler’s Arwen is still bummed that she must leave Middle Earth with the rest of the elves who feel their time has passed. She’s still mystically and soft-focused in love with Aragorn, and in Return, a prophesy is revealed to her that further strengthens this love and makes leaving that much more tragic. Frodo Baggins and Samwise continue their trek to Mount Doom to destroy the ring that Frodo wears with such burden and danger to himself. All the harder with the squirming, whining, and Nosferatu-toothed Gollum/Smeagol leading the way.
Just like in the first two films, each one of the characters will be tested. Aragorn must brave another mountain interior, this one inhabited by the ghosts of soldiers who have been chained to their dark dwelling place by past disloyalties. Gandalf and the hobbit Pippin must prepare the Gondorian city of Minis Tirith, the City of Kings, for the innumerable orcs and evil elephants marching toward them with drooling malice. Frodo and Sam must not only travail the harsh landscape of Mordor to dispose of the cursed ring, but must also endure the mind-games and split personality of the brilliantly rendered Gollum/Smeagol, who desperately wants the power of the ring for himself. All of their lives will come perilously close to ending; all of Middle Earth is nearing imprisonment by the evil that is Sauron.
If you’ve seen neither of the first two films in this trilogy, you will be impossibly confused by the third. If you saw the first or second and did not take to their pure delineations between good and evil, between love and hate, between honor and selfishness, you will not take to this one. If your kind of movie involves four twentysomethings figuring out how to live and love in this crazy mixed-up world of ours, you will run for the exits. But if you surrendered to the gorgeously shot, wonderfully nuanced and detailed rendering of Jackson’s first two films in the series, you will surrender again.
That is the charm of this movie, and for me, a bit of a curse. There are times when the battles, the declarations of love and loyalty and longing, and the many panoramic swoopings of the camera cause more than a twinge of déjà vu. Perhaps an unfair criticism, yet I was getting used to the awe, getting blasé about the majestic sweep of the story. Unfortunately, the template for this film had been set by the two that preceded it, and I found myself not paying as much attention to the film as I did the first two. It felt like “OK. OK. I got it. Can we wrap this up now?”
I give Peter Jackson immense props for turning a much ignored and ridiculed genre into something even I (who ridiculed and ignored this stuff with glee) could sink my teeth into. However, by the time Return was winding down and the characters were uttering their last musings, I felt no sadness in saying goodbye to them. I gave them nine and a half hours. Last time I did that was for Michael Corleone, who also exhausted his welcome by the end of Godfather III.
Still, it was one hell of a ride.
Dan DeMaggio writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].